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Q&A with Nelson’s Mr. Heritage

If you’ve ever walked the main streets of Nelson or Revelstoke, or sailed aboard the MV Osprey 2000 you’ve seen Robert Inwood’s work.
Bob Inwood at his drafting board in his home studio in Winlaw.

If you’ve ever walked the main streets of Nelson, Rossland, or Revelstoke, sailed aboard the MV Osprey 2000, or visited the new Kaslo Hotel, you’ve seen Robert Inwood’s work.

While his signature isn’t always obvious, he’s forged a unique career path from underground cartoonist to designer and co-ordinator of numerous civic revitalization projects.

Born in Reno, where his father was a university professor, Inwood moved at a young age to Scarsdale, New York, and then at 16 to San Jose, where he finished high school and attended college.

Upon coming to Canada, he illustrated several classics of back-to-the-land literature, worked as a carpenter, and taught at the Kootenay School of Art.

But he’s perhaps best known as the co-ordinator of the mainstreet project that overhauled Nelson’s Baker Street in the 1980s.

Inwood, 64, continued to quietly provide design advice to Nelson until this spring when the city dispensed with his services and disbanded its heritage commission.

In a recent interview at his Winlaw home, he told the Star about his early days, his favourite buildings, and why he doesn’t think a mainstreet project could work in Nelson today.

Inwood speaks Thursday, July 19 at 7 p.m. at Touchstones Nelson as part of the Baker Street: Then & Now exhibit, to which he contributed some seldom-seen sketches.

When did you move here?

I originally came up in the summer of ‘70 to scope things out. I had friends who had come to this area and were doing the back-to-the-land thing. It was something I was interested in, getting out of the urban scene in California.

Everybody wonders about my draft status, but I was actually not a draft dodger. I went through this weird lottery process that was supposed to even out the playing field. If your number didn’t come up in that particular year, you got reclassified and could carry on with your life. I got my walking papers from the draft board and kind of magically escaped the whole thing.

But you were sympathetic to the draft dodgers?

Oh, totally. I was definitely not in favour of the war and continue to be a big peace promoter and activist. I was just fortunate I didn’t have to break the law or make the big choice, which ultimately with the amnesty went away anyway. But it was pretty traumatic, obviously, to leave your family and country over political decisions.

Where did you go to college?

San Jose State University. Pretty much always earned my living as an artist. That’s how I paid my rent. Anytime a poster came up for the Student Union, I’d be right in there. Got to deal with Nina Simone, Cannonball Adderly, I did posters for Jerry Garcia. Just being in the mix of the Bay Area put me in touch with a lot of famous people of the day.

I contributed to a magazine published out of that area with guys like Rick Griffin and Robert Crumb, who are pretty famous in the world of low-brow art. My style was a little more fine art, classic fantasy. I was kind of in a dark space. I was young and trying to make an impression.

While everyone thinks of me as Mr. Heritage, I’m a bit of a futurist on the other end. I created this book, Tales From the New Age, published in 1974. It looks at a lot of the weird stuff that was going on and still is. I kind of took it from the standpoint that there’s a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction about how horrible things could be in the future if this or that happened. I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to have a blueprint for how things might change positively rather than everything devolving into some anarchistic, barbaric, road warrior kind of universe?

They were having underground nuclear testing then, so I had this fantasy premise of they do one of these underground things and it sets of this chain reaction of volcanic explosions and calamity. But then I was drawing on my experience up here of getting back to the land.

I got involved with Pigweed Press [of Winlaw]. We produced a futuristic, alternative energy colouring book, showing that my thinking is not only with the past but all these futuristic concepts too. Some Useful Wild Plants was a little book produced by myself and a couple of authors. That mutated into In Harmony With Nature, which was more an exploration of the lifestyle and incorporated some of the stuff from the previous books. When I was starting to think about building houses, Christian Bruyere and I met with people old and young throughout the area who had built homesteads. We put this book together which shows all kinds of techniques for different building styles and structures.

Country Comforts was a follow-up that dealt mostly with houses and primary homestead structures. These two books were published out of New York in the mid-1970s and have been continuously in print ever since. They just were re-published last year. They’re in about their fifth edition now.

How did you transition from that to heritage work?

I was doing posters for the Brain Damage gang and other luminaries who made it through the valley, but wasn’t really making any money. It seemed like a tough area to make it, and I was also trying fine art, which was a tough gig as well. It seemed 50 per cent of my friends were becoming tree planters, and the others were getting into carpentry and contracting. I looked at those two avenues and thought I didn’t really want to do the tree-planting thing, so shifted into carpentry and started getting jobs. Some ended up being related to historic buildings.

One that’s of interest is the Feather of Hawk building (below, right), which was the first facade I designed in Nelson [in 1976]. At the time it was a women’s clothing boutique. I got to know the owners and came up with that idea for them. They pretty well realized it, although the carved head was too expensive, so I turned it into a profile. I actually built that as well, because back in those days I was designing and building.

I took a little heat for it initially from the guy from Heritage Canada. I was all proud of it. I think he looked at it and sneered “Ugh, cedar mania.” I went through quite a learning curve. I was just a brash young guy and didn’t really know all the fine-tuning of heritage. But I listened and read and got up to speed quick.

As part of the Pigweed thing, I got into doing heritage renderings of the buildings downtown. They were published as part of that calendar they did for a lot of years. That was one of the first things that put me on the map with the community and being associated with heritage. Then it was the Chahko Mika Mall coming in that got the merchants all stirred up. “We’ve never had any competition on Baker Street, and we’ve got to do something.”

There were all these ideas floating around about themes, and the government was starting to come on board too so it was this perfect storm. The provincial government sent their crew of students and produced a book. Heritage Canada was looking to get their mainstreet program going. They sent people to Nelson and were very excited. And the downtown revitalization program through Municipal Affairs was getting going. All these things were coming together for Nelson.

They hired me to do the initial conceptual concepts before there was any city program. That was well received and everything was lining up. At that point, the city put out a tender for a co-ordinator, and I got that job.

This is about 1979?

Yes, ‘78-79. I was starting to do things like the gas works building. I designed and co-ordinated that project. That was probably the one where I really flipped over from being the builder to pretty much the designer.

Did you make a point of immersing yourself in architectural history?

Yes. That’s when I got into finishing my college degree. Some of the units I had to pick up were to do with art history so I focused on architectural history. I did immerse myself and learn all about it. You get that in art history anyway, but not to that degree.

Then I was hired as the downtown development officer and carried on. Nelson was the first project. The heritage area revitalization program was the big money coming from the province. It came in two lumps. We did the first core four blocks of Baker Street initially, and that was such a roaring success they offered a second lump, so the program was expanded to the ends of Baker Street and up and down Ward Street as far as the fire hall on one end and down to the corner of Front and Hall.

I kept co-ordinating for the city for close to ten years, until that money ran out. While that was happening, I got involved with other communities. I did Rossland almost at the same time as Nelson. Then Revelstoke came on board. They were interested in getting something going and hired me to co-ordinate their program. I did that for many years as well.

Was your approach to these towns similar or different?

I was using this mainstreet philosophy as the base philosophy. The basic approach was the same, but I tried to look at the authentic heritage, unique character of each community’s architecture and also what that community had in the way of craftspeople or artists so the projects or anything that went in addition to fixing the heritage buildings up wasn’t something ordered out of a catalogue. We tried to foster the local creativity and talent. It was also tied up in a training and business job creation aspect, a secondary economic benefit.

Do you have a favourite project or building?

In Nelson, I really like the RHC building, the Houston block, because it was such a dramatic turnaround. We were able to rediscover and restore and replicate. It was one of the early ones that set the tone in Nelson and made people realize the value of it. Now this is the issue we’re going through: do people still realize the value? I think they sort of do, but there’s a lot of nuance that people don’t really get, be it the city, the business people, or the building owners themselves. That’s what we’re facing at the moment.

Did you notice a time when people weren’t maintaining the buildings as they ought to have?

It’s not everybody. There are people who have maintained. They’ve repainted and reskinned their awnings. They’ve been good citizens. But there are some that I can look and realize they have not done anything since the program 30 years ago. I was out there the other day looking at an awning that literally was an inch deep in moss. What does this say about your business? That was the whole essence of the mainstreet program, to build this correlation between the heritage architecture and an image of the community as a nice shopping experience.

Theoretically if that appreciation was locked in to the local economy, the building owners would voluntarily maintain their properties. That’s where the whole mainstreet concept was born in that so many historic downtowns were either being demolished or neglected as the strip mall or shopping mall set in. All that life was being sucked out.

Normally there wasn’t a mechanism to protect or enhance all that nice heritage that was in private hands. Usually the heritage programs that governments have are more for non-profit organizations. This was one of the few times a program was put in place where public monies were made available to the private sector because of the importance of that block of buildings that represents the main street of a community. It took about ten years from when we first started the program for the changes to lock in and the economy to start shifting and new people to come in and take advantage of the town.

You started the program just as Nelson’s economy nosedived.

Yes, that’s when the sawmill and [university] closed ... It was really the only bright spot that was going on at the time. It was interesting because the press at that point was all over the bad news, which is often the case. We had all the big headlines about this shutting, that’s shutting, doom and gloom, and over in this corner was this little mainstreet thing, but everybody was always like “What facts can you give us about how this is really going to impact the economy” and “Do you really think is going to work?” It was really all a big experiment at that point. There wasn’t any hard data to draw from and say “this is a success formula.”

So Nelson was the template.

It was one of them. Heritage Canada had seven pilot project towns, but definitely in British Columbia, it’s where all the provincial, federal resources were getting dumped to see if it would work. Then it quickly did. Rossland was happening almost at the same time and Revelstoke in maybe 1983 or ‘84. It was in the wind at the time. Nelson was chosen because of the quantity and quality of its architecture. It was a bit of a toin-coss, I understand, between Nelson and Revelstoke.

Revelstoke is pretty amazing in its own right, but doesn’t really have the same quality of architecture. Although now, I think Revelstoke takes much better care of its city than Nelson. That’s my beef with Nelson: it sometimes seems to take itself or what it has for granted. There’s almost a sense of entitlement. That can so easily slip away. I’ve seen in almost every aspect of the two parallel programs between Nelson and Revelstoke, right from the start Revelstoke had programs in place to maintain the stuff being put out on public property. Nelson never really seemed to. Somehow it never bought into maintaining things.

It was left up to individual building owners?

Pretty much. We put a lot of beautiful custom-made street furniture and hardware out there, and none of it was maintained, really. It’s a sad waste of resources and lack of appreciation for what they had. Whereas in Revelstoke, everything’s maintained. They built Grizzly Plaza, a public space, and put programs and money behind animating that space from day one. Because of that they have a really vibrant scene for tourists in the summer. It’s run as a tourist town whereas Nelson sits back and waits for everybody to fall over themselves with how fabulous it is. And it is fabulous. I can’t put it down at all, but at the same time, it’s starting, I think, to show definite signs from that lack of attention. Everybody looks to the city, but it needs to be a concerted effort.

What I find disheartening now is it seems to be getting into almost personal agendas rather than the city working together. If I had to characterize Nelson, that’s what I’ve seen. As a community, it has a hard time working together. We have so many strong, opinionated, creative individuals that we don’t get stuff done.

That’s where I’m at now: realizing that I don’t think the Nelson project I co-ordinated would even be able to happen now. It was a different time. I was just the right guy in the right place at the right time with a certain skill set. There was one architect in town. You could have counted on half of one hand the number of designers. Now there are probably at least ten young, qualified architects trying to make it. Everybody’s got these super strong opinions about how to do things or how things should look. The sort of benevolent dictator syndrome we had, you’d never get it to happen now. Everyone would have too many opinions about how things should be.

Did people put their faith in you, or did some question your judgement?

Nobody questioned the building stuff. It was pretty hard to not like that, although ironically I found negative pushback more typically came from oldtimers, which is counter-intuitive. Sometimes they say what we want is progress, we don’t want to go back to the old days. That’s why we lost in some ways so much heritage architecture, and the architectural institutions themselves were very down on heritage and always pushing for the next big wonderful thing, which didn’t include ornament or that same vocabulary as the Victorian stuff which people love. It is artistic and fun to look at and not all brutal and hard-edge. The older people sometimes would be less likely to jump on board if they happened to be a building owner. It would be a tougher sell.

The most contentious thing in Nelson was to do with the amenity areas and anything that had to do with, heaven forbid, parking on the main street. And social issues. Fears they would become hang-out places and drug dealing meccas. It’s more of a problem now, if you want to call it that, than it was back then. That’s part of Nelson’s charm, its tolerance of counterculture. It puts these unusual individuals on the street and some people are tolerant and some are intimidated. That was the main issue in terms of controversy. We scaled back on what was originally planned. Still today you’ll get people who believe the whole street should be shut down to traffic.

What building was the most time-consuming?

The Hudson Bay/Nelson Trading Co. was what we refer to as economic restructuring, where you look at buildings that aren’t making it for some reason, and that puts them in danger of demolition. That one was really big because of its size and the extent of how much it had been changed. We had to totally reconfigure and come up with a concept for the interior to make it economically viable.

The Eagles block was another really big one that had to have a lot of replication done to get it back to what it looked like. Many were mildly cosmetic. You would take one of the newer materials off, that was the fun of it. Either they totally buggered it up, or woah, you can work with it. It was probably 60-30 good news stories to god, what were they thinking?

The budget was $500,000, devoted to four blocks of Baker Street. A portion of that went to helping pay my salary as the co-ordinator and also some of the streetscape improvements, the light fixtures. Say $400,000 of it went to the buildings. These days it’s really nothing. You can’t built a half-decent house for $400,000, and yet here we’re dealing with dozens of major buildings. Fortunately, it was mostly stripping and refurbishing rather than tons of new construction and materials.

The basic task was to make sure the buildings were stabilized against any intrusive weather damage and things that, if they were left as they were would further cause their deterioration to a point where there would be a rationale for demolishing them. Many seemingly had very little maintenance since they were built.

Did any get away?

Not too many. I think we had a 98 per cent participation rate. But one that currently is an issue is the Redfish Grill. I think they’re out-of-town landlords. That was one of the reasons Nelson had a good success rate. We had a good percentage of in-town building owners. You always have the banks and corporate guys to deal with. That was one of the issues with the Hudson’s Bay. It was owned by Fields. They are notorious for being cheap and wanting to look cheap. It wasn’t until they pulled up stakes and moved out and put the building on the market that a group of three local business guys pooled their money and bought the building and made the change. We did have good corporate participation, I’d say, from the banks and others generally.

Did you get a sense it restored pride to the town?

I think Nelson always had a lot of pride in the town, but once the buildings were fixed up, they had a reason to be proud. It definitely put a much happier face on things and gave the community something else to market itself on. The movie [Roxanne] gave the town more free publicity than it could have ever hoped to buy. That all fortuitously happened.

On the MV Osprey 2000:

When Corky Evans had the idea of having much of the Osprey done locally, he got in touch with me to give it a Kootenay character. I think a lot of people thought “Oh, Bob, he’ll make it look like the Moyie or something.” And then I met the naval architects. They were all these Ferrari jet-age kind of guys with their visions.

You said you wanted to dispel the myth that heritage is the only thing you do.

I’m a pretty universal designer. One of the principles of design is motifs. What got me really excited is when they decided to name it the Osprey. Right from the Feather of Hawk, I’ve used the osprey motif in my first business cards and letterheads. Some people look at it and see a native heritage to it, but I’m actually coming out of almost Egyptian art deco background. I consciously stay away from any replication of First Nations motifs. It ended up what I could do for the ferry was give it a little bit of personality. Nobody was going to turn it into the Moyie with a fake paddlewheel. My friend Tom Lynn did the figureheads and castings. He would take my drawing and make it work. That was my thing on the Osprey, to give the exterior a bit of personality through these various castings and making the railing something other than utilitarian pipes.

What can design do for a town?

One of the big things the whole mainstreet program brought to the nation was the concept of having professional design people looking holistically at a community, which I don’t think had ever occurred before except in instances of company towns. Typically things get built incrementally, and over the years the building owners on their own would want to make improvements or modernize or stand out from the crowd. So you had this very uncoordinated, hodgepodge approach. That’s pretty much what Nelson looked like — a dog’s breakfast.

The mainstreet program brought a co-ordinator in. Some tended to be marketing people, so they would be more business-oriented and would hire designers. But the special thing about the program was that it provided free design advice to the building owners as an impetus to that first stage. How could this look? Which normally a person might get from a contractor, or they might be faced with hiring an architect for thousands of dollars. That was huge, and something that in my mind hasn’t been impressed enough upon people. How this holistic design approach really made such a huge difference, in that period anyway, to the look of things.

Did you find recently that business have had a harder time buying in to the bigger picture?

We often look at it as educational issue, that some people don’t understand or appreciate the value of what’s being offered to them. From what I’ve seen being with it for the decades I have, we started with this period of winning people over initially and them seeing “oh yeah, this is great, we can work with this.” Then the years go by and many of the original people have sold their buildings or died. We’ve had a lot of new people come in who are attracted by what Nelson is and how great it looks. Not to fault them, but they want to make their positive mark. Every businessperson has to make money, so everybody’s always thinking what can I do?

In Nelson we try to have everybody understanding a fairly sophisticated level of design appreciation. Things as subtle as the colour you paint your building. Should it blend and flow with your neighbour or stand out? We try to foster that co-operative approach. Generally I think people get that, but you do get the odd person who doesn’t, or is coming from a different place and think they should be able to do whatever to promote their business.

That’s usually where they come into conflict with the design guidelines and bigger vision for the city. How that is dealt with at the city counter, I think, is what makes or breaks it. It often depends on the personality of who’s involved. When I was able to help people, that was hardly ever a problem because I could always come up with a solution that made them happy and satisfied the guidelines. Now it becomes more confrontational because you have people at the front office who can’t help, so all they’re doing is “Here’s this regulation, and the commission says this, and the guideline says this,” and people feel just like god, my creativity and entrepreneurialism is being stifled. It becomes a negative connotation and they don’t appreciate the value of it.

Do you think that’s why the city did away with the commission?

I’ve talked with [councillors] Robin Cherbo and Candace Batycki. They get it. The program could have been integrated into the city’s protocols better than it was. But we were off on our side doing our thing. We never really set up a protocol for maintenance. I just assumed the city would take care of it.

Comments came up that reinforced that there are people even on council who don’t get it. The building with Big Cranium in it was one of the last wooden storefronts, and through a glitch in procedure, a building permit was issued for them to essentially demolish the facade without anything even coming to the heritage commission. Had nothing to do with the commission. We were aghast and distraught that happened and as a result made structural changes to the policies and protocols to hopefully ensure it didn’t happen again.

Or Reo’s Video. Some people might think it’s the most fabulous piece of modernist contemporary art. Others can’t drive down the street without feeling ill. Something like that happens, everyone’s going “I thought we had a heritage commission to protect us against that.” But the commission voted it down and council voted it through. That’s disappointing to me, that lack of understanding. So we have new people coming in wanting to do their thing who sometimes don’t really have much background on what happened previously.

The other thing, ironically, is all the eco/green/sustainability stuff, which is wonderful but acknowledged as a real problem in the heritage world. We have lost so much original fenestration — doors and windows — which often has a lot to do with the character of the building.

We’ve had several council reps on the commission who seemed to come on with an agenda. “We’re going to get through this red tape” or “You can’t stand in the way of sustainability.” You can have sustainability and maintain heritage. Around here it’s like “Oh these old windows, it’s easier to rip them out, it’s more cost effective.” That’s the biggest challenge. In everybody’s enthusiasm to promote heritage, they’re destroying it.

Authenticity is the actual definition of heritage: the authentic thing carried forward into the present and hopefully the future. We’re losing it project by project. Almost every one that’s coming forward. Even though it looks okay, that’s where you start getting into the more esoteric aspects of heritage and what does it mean to the community? What’s its real value? Where I think there should be more of a dialogue going on than has been.

We try to do education, like when they were going to tear all the windows out of Touchstones and replace them with big sheets of thermal glass, we turned that one around. They were trying to give us all the reasons why their idea was better than what we were proposing. We brought a guy in from Victoria who was well recognized with the heritage branch as being an expert on restoring windows. He gave a great workshop and showed how in fact the older windows are way better than the new ones in terms of the quality of materials. We came up with the solution of a double-paned situation, like an interior storm window.

We need to continue to foster groups of people who have the knowledge and appreciation and understanding. If you start sidelining those people and sort of denigrating their purpose in the community, they’re going to dry up and go away. It just gets easier and easier for bad decisions to get made when it’s put into the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.